Food systems contribute greatly to climate change. Cooling the planet might require shaking up our meal plans.
Substitute meat brands at a supermarket in Westchester County, New York, 16 February 2021. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)
Have you ever thought about how global warming is linked to what we eat, and the systems that produce our food?
Climate change, which is increasingly causing more severe storms, massive flooding, extended droughts and unpredictable weather patterns, is a growing threat to food systems. It can reduce crop production, interrupt food supply chains and force entire communities to migrate if they can’t feed themselves.
Demand for food production will keep rising, as the global population continues to grow.
What many people don’t realize is that the whole system that brings food to your table actually contributes a lot to global greenhouse gas emissions and strains water resources.
Food systems are estimated to account for as much as 34% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2022 Global Food Policy Report. This comes in part from growing, fertilizing and processing food.
Redesigning our food systems
Transportation, distribution, preparation and even disposal of food create greenhouse gasses that trap the sun’s heat and contribute to climate change.
“Food systems contribute substantially to greenhouse gas emissions and must play a role in mitigation through changes in agricultural practices and land use, more efficient value chains, and reduced food loss and waste,” the Global Food Policy Report said.
Governments, farmers, companies and organizations involved across the food system have launched efforts to make changes to reduce emissions. They are trying to cut fossil fuel use and emissions in transportation, irrigation and cold storage.
They are using innovative techniques to use more solar power, create and plant seed varieties that are more resilient to climate shocks. They are trying to better manage farmland and forests to make them more of a carbon sink.
But this isn’t just a problem that can be solved by changes from producers and governments, experts said.
“Reducing emissions from the food sector requires change at all stages, from producers to consumers,” the United Nations said on its website. So what can you do?
1. Think about what you’re eating.
Consider moving more toward plant-rich diets.
The largest amount of food-related greenhouse gasses come from agriculture and land use, the UN said. This includes methane from cattle’s digestion, nitrous oxide from fertilizers and carbon dioxide from cutting down forests to expand farmland and other agricultural emissions.
Animal-based foods — especially red meat, dairy and farmed shrimp — are associated with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, while plant-based foods use less energy, land and water and have lower greenhouse gas intensities.
Shopping for food produced locally can help local farmers, but the UN said “what you eat is more important than how far that food has traveled or how much packaging it has. Transport and packaging typically account for only a small fraction of foods’ greenhouse gas emission.”
‘What you eat is more important than how far that food has traveled.’
Sarah Zoubek, associate director of Duke University’s World Food Policy Center, said sometimes it’s actually better from an emissions standpoint to have something shipped across the world than to have it driven by a truck, because shipping is more efficient than a diesel truck.
2. Reduce food waste.
Almost one billion tons of food — 17% of all food available to consumers worldwide — gets wasted every year, the UN said. Producing, transporting and letting that food rot contributes more than 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Zoubek pointed to food waste as an easy thing to improve.
“When you think about it in terms of emissions, you can think about so much food waste,” she said. “Think about all the energy and nutrients and resources that went into producing this food. And when that goes into a landfill or when it sits in the field, that also gives off some emissions as well.”
Reducing food waste can be as easy as just making sure you only buy what you need and use what you buy. If you do need to throw out food, composting can reduce the amount of methane and carbon dioxide released by the organic waste.
“In your little world, you can always cut back on food loss and waste,” Zoubek said.
3. Shop with a reusable bag.
The production, use and disposal of plastics contributes to climate change. If you shop with your own reusable bag, you will help reduce the amount of plastic waste.
Three questions to consider:
- How does global warming impact food production?
- Why is the food production system part of the problem?
- Can you think of ways you can do your part to reduce emissions related to food?
Deborah Charles was a Reuters correspondent for 24 years. She worked on four continents on issues ranging from the White House to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and was the White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. She covered four U.S. presidential campaigns and six Olympics, and worked in bureaus in Madrid, Bangkok, Montreal, Toronto, New York and Buenos Aires. She is former Senior Managing Editor at Devex, a news organization focused on global development, and is currently consulting for the World Bank.